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Their hellbent country-punk theatrics suggest the offspring of Tim Kasher and David Eugene Edwards. A combination of The Good Life's conceptual psycho-dramas and 16 Horsepower's Pentecostal fury, Murder by Death's latest album, Red of Tooth and Claw, brings all the band's elements into tight focus and cooks it at 425 degrees for 35 minutes.
And it burns: Singer-guitarist Adam Turla admits to a fascination for the shadowy corners of the human soul where plywood-covered windows bear witness to a shooting gallery of the tortured, lost and damned.
"I like the idea that there's evil lurking in places and that romantic/bizarre idea that a place can be full of bad mojo," he confesses, en route from Salt Lake City to Boise for his band's next show.
That bad mojo-filled place might be Red of Tooth and Claw, which loosely traces the path of a vengeful drifter on his Odyssey-like journey across 11 tracks, surveying the pain wreaked in his wake.
It opens with "Comin' Home," as, over trilling cello and a rumbling rockabilly beat, Turla's brawny basso declares, "Turning brick walls into doors, I'm comin' home/I got that taste in my mouth, I got a hunger in my gut, my skin has turned to leather, my hair is banded rope...Put a cross above the door/Lay up the boards, I'm on my way."
It closes with a hungover, pussy-hounding tale of redemption appropriately titled, "Spring Break 1899," where Turla recounts his trip to "bars full of girls who all know me by name/They all drink the same drinks and they all fuck the same."
"We started writing the songs independently," Turla says. "We had one or two songs with a few key lyrics, and a story seemed like it was hiding in there, so we kind of dug it out."
The Bloomington, Indiana, quartet began life in 2000 as a five-piece. Keyboardist Vincent Edwards departed in 2004, after the band released two albums and a trio of EPs together. Cellist Sarah Balliet doubled up as needed, and then in 2007 original drummer Alex Schrodt left, replaced by Dagan Thogerson. Judging from the results, the new lineup's come together nicely.
"We had to focus more on tightening up to keep things interesting and make sure that drums lock up with the guitar parts in the tiniest ways," says Turla.
The music ranges from devilish, cymbal-cracking Western swing ("Rumbrave") to sultry, surf-tinged country twang ("Fuego!") and dark, rocky ballads ("Ash"), covering the territory crisply, without sacrificing any stormy instrumental drama.
Previous albums could occasionally get muddled with the busy, more angular arrangements and the cello's heightened emotionality; Red of Tooth and Claw never loses its balance. One of the album's most distinctive elements is Turla's sinewy vocals. But this wasn't always the case—earlier albums found him singing more often in the upper register.
"The more I learn how to sing, the more comfortable I am singing low," Turla says. "I took voice lessons a few years back—that started that process. I just feel a lot better singing lower. My pitch is better, it's feels more natural... [so] when I started pitching melodies, I naturally went for a lower one."
There's also a dark undertone to many of the stories Turla sings, and he admits to being fascinated by what drives people to do bad. He was a religious studies major at Indiana University, where he met the other founding members—cellist Balliet, and Dallas native, bassist Matt Armstrong.
"I try to make most of these stories three-dimensional, so it's not just always someone who is a bad person," he says. "But sometimes I do like writing about bastards."
But as the band's somewhat whimsical moniker (cadged from a 1976 Neil Simon comedy) and song titles, such as "Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue," suggest, they've got a healthy sense of humor (which just happens to be dark as night) too.
"We like the dark subject matter," Turla says, "but we're not sitting around crying in the dark. It's just the opposite."